Democrats' Cure for a Primary Problem

March 02, 1986|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion.

WASHINGTON — The South may rise again. At least that is the intention of southern Democrats, determined to have more say in the presidential nominating process. The Southern Legislative Conference, made up of state legislators, has endorsed the idea of a southern regional primary, to be held during the second week of March, 1988, just after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

"We're excited that we can have more impact on presidential and vice presidential nominations than any time since the War of Northern Aggression," said one Mississippi legislator. Southern leaders are confident that as many as 12 southern states will end up selecting their 1988 convention delegates--about one-quarter of each party's total--at the same time. (Last week, Gov. Richard D. Lamm of Colorado proposed a similar idea--a Rocky Mountain primary, with all the western states except California.)

The problem is simple. Three times in recent years, the Democratic Party has nominated essentially the same ticket--a northern liberal Protestant for President and a northern liberal Catholic for vice president. All lost badly, with roughly the same share of the national vote: 43% for Hubert H. Humphrey and Edmund G. Muskie in 1968; 38% for George S. McGovern and R. Sargent Shriver Jr. in 1972 and 41% for Walter F. Mondale and Geraldine A. Ferraro in 1984. Each time, the Democrats did worse in the South than in any other region (31% of the southern vote in 1968, 29% in 1972, 37% in 1984). Among southern white voters, the Democratic presidential vote fell to less than 30% in all three elections.

Indeed, the most dramatic evidence of realignment in American politics is the fact that the South, once the bedrock for the Democrats' national majority, now seems solidly Republican in presidential elections. Between 1932 and 1964, three-fourths of the South's electoral votes went to the Democrats. Since 1964, two-thirds have gone to the GOP.

The problem may be clear, but the solution is not. Southern Democrats, particularly those who vote in presidential primaries, are no longer different from non-southern Democrats. Moreover, even if the southern Democrats get their way, they may not be able to take back the South. Democrats have fundamental ideological problems in the Sun Belt, the West as well as the South.

Conservative southern whites have been leaving the Democratic Party since 1964, when the national party embraced the civil-rights revolution. As southern Democratic parties have become smaller, they have become more moderate--and more black. Before jumping to the conclusion that an early southern regional primary will be decisive in 1988, one must consider whether the Democratic presidential contest will ignite interest among southern whites, and whether their preferences will be so different from non-southern Democrats.

In 1984, only the Rev. Jesse Jackson excited interest among southern Democrats, and then only among blacks. Turnout in southern presidential primaries dropped from an average of 18% of the voting-age population in 1980 to 14% in 1984. However, blacks--a quarter of southern Democrats--were overrepresented in the 1984 southern primaries, averaging 30%, according to exit polls.

These figures suggest that white southerners had little interest in any 1984 Democratic candidate and stayed home. That was a blow to Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, who presented himself as a centrist Democrat and looked south to revive his candidacy. Actually, southern Democrats voted just like other Democrats in 1984, with the three liberal candidates--Mondale, Jackson and Sen. Gary Hart--out-polling Glenn. Democratic contenders considering a moderate "southern strategy" in 1988 should take Glenn's experience as a caution.

Primaries have dominated the last four nominating contests, and the South has played a different role each time. In 1972, George Wallace won southern primaries but was unacceptable to most Democrats outside the South. Jimmy Carter carried all southern Democratic primaries in 1976, but only after first demonstrating appeal in Iowa and New Hampshire. In 1984, as noted, the southern primary vote mirrored the non-southern.

The best case for southern primaries making a critical difference is 1980. Jimmy Carter's 3-to-1 margin over Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in the southern primaries probably gave him the nomination. Outside the South, the two men were virtually tied. So the South got its way. What good did it do? Every southern state except Georgia went Republican in 1980.

The Democrats have a western as well as a southern problem. Since 1964, 96% of the West's electoral votes have gone to the GOP. California, for example, voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt four times and then for Harry S. Truman in 1948. In the nine presidential elections since, California has gone Democratic once--in 1964.

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